Monday, June 4, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty-"McCabe & Mrs. Miller," starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, Directed by Robert Altman (1971)

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller."

Beatty and director Robert Altman in a lighter moment on the set.

Warren Beatty as McCabe.

Robert Altman’s 1971 western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the title roles, is one of the director’s best-known movies. Largely unsuccessful when originally released, it has since gained a considerable critical following. Personally, I found it less than compelling, although there are impressive moments in the movie.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is set in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, and tells the story of John McCabe, (Beatty) a gambler who comes to the frontier town of Presbyterian Church and starts a brothel. Soon afterwards a professional madam, Mrs. Miller (Christie) comes to town and offers to run the brothel for McCabe. He agrees, and they become business partners. Eventually, McCabe falls in love with her. McCabe’s brothel becomes more and more successful, and a mining company wants to buy him out. McCabe refuses to sell, and does not heed the warning that he will be killed if he refuses to sell. Eventually gunmen come to the town to kill McCabe, and he battles them in a snowstorm, killing all of them, but not before being mortally wounded. McCabe then dies in a snowbank.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is a dark, drab, and dreary movie. It’s definitely an “anti-western” movie, as Altman plays with and subverts many of the conventions of the genre. There’s nothing romantic about either of the lead characters, or the town they’re in. The unglamorous tone of the movie is probably closer to reality than most of the “classic” Hollywood westerns. One of my biggest problems with the movie is the almost inaudible sound mix. It’s extremely hard to understand what anyone is saying, especially at the beginning of the movie. I know that overlapping dialogue was one of Altman's trademarks as a director, but here it’s used very ineffectively. The sound makes it hard to get into the movie. It’s difficult to figure out what’s going on and who the characters are. When he first saw the movie, Beatty was very annoyed at the sound mix, saying, “The sound in the first couple of reels, in which one would ordinarily expect that the exposition would be laid down and had to be clear, was not clear. That sort of irritated me.” (“Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America,” by Peter Biskind, p. 163.) 

Beatty gives an excellent performance as McCabe. Beatty hides his handsomeness under a bushy beard, a giant fur coat, and a derby hat. He also sports a gold tooth. For someone who is so famously vain, Beatty certainly doesn’t mind looking like an idiot when the part calls for it. McCabe has a reputation as a gunfighter, even though it’s probably more likely that he has exaggerated his tales. McCabe is a dreamer, a visionary, which means he fits in with just about every other character that Beatty has played. McCabe is also very persuasive and charming, just like Clyde Barrow and Bugsy Siegel, the other outlaws Beatty has played. Unlike Barrow and Siegel, McCabe is not a sociopath. McCabe is a blowhard. He’s a great talker, just like Beatty. My favorite moment is Beatty’s monologue in the middle of the movie where he’s analyzing himself and his relationship with Mrs. Miller. It’s a very funny scene, and shows what a great comic actor Beatty is. Beatty said in an interview, “I like to play schmucks. Cocky schmucks. Guys who think they know it all but don’t. It’s been the story of my life to think I knew what I was talking about and later find out that I didn’t.” Beatty found similarities between McCabe and Clyde Barrow, saying, “They were not heroes. I found that to be funny, and Altman found it to be funny; we really agreed on that.” (Biskind, p. 151.) 

Julie Christie does a good job as Mrs. Miller, and she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress. Beatty and Christie were a real-life couple at the time “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was made, and this was their first film together. (They would later star in “Shampoo” and “Heaven Can Wait” together.) There’s not a ton of chemistry between Beatty and Christie, but that’s not really the point of the movie. The soundtrack is made up of songs by Leonard Cohen, which, although anachronistic, fit the slow, melancholy nature of the movie perfectly. The songs that are in the movie are actually from Cohen’s first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” from 1967, but they fit the movie so well that one might think that Cohen had written them especially for the movie. Cohen’s song “The Stranger Song,” with its references to gambling and card dealing fits McCabe’s character very well. The climactic shootout during the snowstorm is very well done. It’s a very long sequence, and there’s no music on the soundtrack during it, which just makes it more tense and suspenseful. 

Beatty and Altman didn’t get along, as their perspectives on filmmaking were total opposites. Altman preferred spontaneity and encouraged the actors to improvise their dialogue, while Beatty, ever the perfectionist, wanted take after take to choose from. Anne Sidaris, Altman’s assistant, said that Altman tended to manipulate actors into giving the performance he wanted. “I think he had trouble manipulating Warren, because Warren’s pretty strong-minded. Warren knew who he was, and that made him a different challenge.” (“Warren Beatty: A Private Man,” by Suzanne Finstad, p. 398.) Beatty said, “I believe in improvising, but I don’t believe in improvising from nothing. So I had to write a script...I worked quite a bit more on the script than he [Altman] did…My approach was more linear…I wrote most of the scenes that I was in.” (Biskind, p. 151.) Beatty was angered when he didn’t receive any writing credit on the movie, and Altman did. In the understatement of the century department, Altman said of Beatty, “Warren is basically a control freak. He wants to run the show.” (Biskind, p. 154.) The only thing that’s surprising about Beatty’s move into directing is that he didn’t start directing sooner. Beatty wouldn’t start directing until 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait,” which he actually co-directed with Buck Henry. Or, rather, Buck Henry got a co-directing credit, as Beatty initially wasn’t sure he could direct by himself, but Beatty quickly took over and shoved Henry to the side. Beatty and Altman clashed about how many takes to shoot, and at one point, Altman left the set at the end of the day and simply let Beatty and the crew shoot until Warren was happy. Beatty defended his perfectionism, saying, “A lot of times, Bob would wonder why I was working so hard. I’m just a person that thinks, when you go to all that trouble to set up a movie and build a set and get dressed and go there, I don’t see any harm in doing a number of takes.” (Biskind, p. 154.) Of course, Beatty doesn’t say how many “a number” is. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty takes? It’s a good thing that Beatty never worked with Stanley Kubrick; they might have never finished filming! 

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is a very interesting movie, if not a totally successful one. If you’re a fan of Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, or Julie Christie you should see it. Just remember to turn up the volume.

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